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In whose hands? The dubious backers of Boris Johnson

in whose hands? Boris Johnsons personal troubles have deflected attention from his dubious backers. Rousseau/PA Wire. - Credit: PA

The favourite to be our next prime minister has links to a motley crew of chancers, losers and far-right agitators, says JAMES BALL

The overwhelming favourite to be the UK’s prime minister by the end of July is a political Janus, presented by his supporters as two entirely different characters depending upon who they’re talking to.

To the hard-right Brexiteers who make up much of the parliamentary Conservative Party and a large part of its membership – the tiny fraction of the UK electorate who get a say over who will run the country next – Boris Johnson is offered up as the one true Brexiteer, the man who would prefer a catastrophic no-deal to even the slightest delay, the person who will bring back Britain’s traditional role on the international stage.

To the small cadre of Tory moderates who remain in parliament – and to the wider British establishment and its business leaders – a very different Johnson is presented. Don’t worry about what he’s saying to the people in the cheap seats, this narrative goes, Johnson is a liberal Conservative – he was known for it as mayor of London. Once he’s in office, he’s the man who can bring the hardliners round to a sensible Brexit deal (almost identical to May’s) and he’ll govern as a mainstream Conservative. There’s nothing to worry about.

Perhaps before 2016 this would have been a widely reassuring argument. But in November of that year, Donald Trump ascended to the presidency of the United States – and many of those around him had either given or received many of the same assurances. He doesn’t mean the stuff he says about trade, or Mexico, or building a wall, they’d say. He’s a businessman – he’ll be a standard pro-business Republican in office.

The trouble for Boris Johnson is we now have more than two years of seeing how that turned out. The potential trouble for the rest of us is that it looks set to make absolutely no difference to his prospects of success.

What is likely to compound those fears is that Johnson and Trump apparently share an advisor: Steve Bannon, the far-right firebrand who served as Trump’s campaign chief and then briefly as his senior strategist in the White House claims – in a video which emerged last weekend – to have advised Johnson on his resignation speech when he quit as Theresa May’s foreign secretary last year.

Bannon, who once helmed the far-right website Breitbart and has described himself an “economic nationalist” seeking to lead the “global populist movement”, is seen by some as a dangerous leader of a worldwide rise in populism – often accompanied with overtly racist fringe groups. He is seen by others as someone who would love to be this, but is, instead, a failed hanger-on to Trump, riding the coattails of his brief proximity to power.

Most people in either group would not wish for their next prime minister to be an associate of such a figure – and Bannon is an unreliable witness. But they will find little reassurance in comments in response to the emergence of the video from Nigel Farage, the UK’s own populist leader whose Brexit Party won the EU elections and who currently sit at the top of the polls.

Rather than suggest his potential rival party leader was a wet or a liberal, Farage claimed that in his view Johnson and Bannon did speak to one another. Farage, who has been an associate of Bannon’s for several years, added “Boris, of course, got to know Bannon when he was foreign secretary, when he was visiting Washington and going into the West Wing, and that’s how those two got to know each other”.

As leader of a party reliant on taking votes from the Conservatives in order to break through, you’d expect Farage to be fighting against Boris Johnson tooth-and-nail. If anything, Farage’s comments could be helpful to Johnson, at least if he really wants a Brexit – a sign of the hard-right love-in many fear a Johnson premiership would mean.

Those on the populist right, then, either know Johnson or are happy to give the impression they do – he’s not someone they feel a need to condemn or disassociate themselves from. To many, that’s enough to be unnerving, but if someone was looking to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt, they might choose to look at the other company he keeps, and see whether this serves as something to reassure them, or to worry them further.

One photograph of the former foreign secretary which circulates now and again on Twitter is of Johnson and professor Joseph Mifsud, together at a black tie function. Mifsud may not be a household name, but gained brief notoriety during the investigation into president Donald Trump’s ties with Russia – and is the man who indirectly led to the launch of the Mueller investigation.

Mifsud, a former politics teaching fellow at Stirling University, met with George Papadopoulos, a junior foreign policy aide on the Trump election campaign, and informed him that the Russian government had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton – a contact which any normal campaign would immediately notify the FBI about. Instead, Papadopoulos did nothing until he got drunk in a London pub with Australian diplomat Alexander Downer, and told him about the tip-off.

Downer, unlike his drunken new friend, did indeed inform the appropriate authorities – a move which led to the FBI investigation into Trump’s contacts with the Russians, which led in turn to the firing of the FBI director, which led to the launch of the Mueller probe.

While that photograph of Johnson and Mifsud was damning for some, politicians meet a lot of people, and middlemen like Mifsud live to obtain such photographs to help advance their own apparent importance – it’s possible the two men only met and chatted for seconds, and so he deserves huge benefit of the doubt over that contact.

However, uncannily, Mifsud isn’t Johnson’s only indirect connection to the Trump/Russia probe – and the other is a much closer associate of his, Lynton Crosby.

Crosby is the Conservative polling guru and strategist credited with Johnson’s London mayoral victories and the Tories’ 2015 general election campaign. He is also a political consultant with a huge amount of controversial baggage, given his firms deep connections with the tobacco industry, and accusations that he ran a deeply Islamophobic campaign when trying unsuccessfully to get Zac Goldsmith elected as mayor versus Sadiq Khan.

Crosby’s public affairs firm – though not the man himself – also worked as part of an effort to get two Russian men removed from a list of suggested sanction targets from the European parliament, over their involvement in an alleged $230 million fraud against the financier Bill Browder, which led to the death of Browder’s lawyer in a Russian jail.

It was the US sanctions against a targeted list of Russians allegedly involved in this fraud – known as the Magnitsky Act, after the deceased lawyer – which led to the notorious Trump Tower meeting, in which Donald Trump’s son met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer and discussed potentially lifting the sanctions in exchange for negative information on Hillary.

Of course, neither Johnson nor Crosby had any knowledge of or involvement in that meeting – but it does signify that in Boris Johnson’s orbit at least, the political galaxy is a very small one indeed.

Beyond these immediate figures – and concerns about the populist right and their apparent arms-length allies in Russia – people could be forgiven for looking at the others around Boris Johnson.

If there is a risk that some of these figures will be giving advice on one of his shoulders as PM, who are the potential counter-voices, who might be the better (or at least moderating) angels of his nature?

Looking around his campaign team, it’s difficult to pick too many obvious candidates. Among the foremost Boris Johnson backers is Conor Burns MP – the man who once introduced the disgraced far-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos to Margaret Thatcher, shortly before her death.

Burns serves as trustee to a foundation set up to honour Thatcher’s memory, which was funded by among others the Mercer family – the family behind the funding for both Breitbart and Cambridge Analytica, which also bankrolls Steve Bannon in other ventures.

The foundation is currently under investigation by the Charity Commission, as the centre dedicated to Thatcher it was intended to build has still not opened, but much of the donated money has been spent, according to the Times, and the Commission is concerned some of it has been spent on political purposes not compliant with UK charity law. Burns and the other trustees strongly deny any wrongdoing.

Elsewhere, Johnson is now supported by Gavin Williamson, the man who served as the campaign chief for Theresa May’s leadership campaign, then her chief whip, who then apparently recommended himself – successfully – as her defence secretary.

Williamson then resigned in disgrace after the Telegraph was leaked information on Huawei – which wishes to run parts of the UK’s 5G phone network, against security concerns from the US government – from the UK’s National Security Council, which is intended as one of the UK’s most secret meetings.

Williamson was asked to resign in an unusually furious exchange of letters after it emerged he had a seven-minute phonecall with the journalist in question shortly after the meeting. Despite this he has denied being the source, and authorities declined to consider a prosecution.

Other prominent Johnson backers include Grant Shapps, who as an MP ran a ‘get-rich-quick scheme’ under a false name, then angrily denied doing so until unconvertible evidence to the contrary was presented to him, and Charlie Elphicke – who had the Conservative whip withdrawn from him in November 2017 after allegations of serious wrongdoing, only to have it coincidentally reinstated immediately prior to a confidence vote in Theresa May.

Johnson is, of course, free to pick whoever he wishes as his friends and as his campaign backers – but those watching him are free to draw their own conclusions by who he chooses to surround himself with.

So far, many of those choices appear to be chancers, those discredited elsewhere, or those with far-right links. It is not only in his characteristic hair that Boris Johnson resembles the US president.

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